Depressant Drugs

depressants Photo courtesy of Ark Behavioral HealthOpens in new window

Depressant drugs or medications act as depressants on the central nervous system (CNS). Sometimes referred to as sedatives or hypnotics, they slow normal brain function. Depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, cannabis (marijuana), and some club drugs (e.g., Rohypnol, ketamine).

Most CNS depressants act on the brain by increasing activity of the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Increasing GABA activity in the brain can produce drowsiness or a calming effect. CNS depressants can cause impaired motor coordination, slurred speech, shallow breathing, fatigue, frequent yawning, irritability, and intoxication.

Barbiturates (e.g., Nembutal, emphobarbital) are used to treat anxiety, tension, and sleep disorders and have been used to treat seizure disorders. Street names for barbiturates include barbs, blues, downers, gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), goof balls, reds, rohypno, sleepers, and yellow jackets.

High doses of barbiturates can cause unpredictable emotional reactions and mental confusion. Long-term use can cause chronic tiredness, vision problems, dizziness, slowed reflexes, depression, intense mood swings, and disrupted sleep cycles.

BenzodiazepinesOpens in new window (e.g., Valium, Librium, Xanax, Halcion) may be prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks, seizure disordes, and insomnia. Street names include date rape drug, nerve pills, roofies, tranks, and Xanies. Benzodiazepines activate the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical messenger) in the reward pathways (limbic system) of the brain. Mixing benzodiazepines with other drugs, such as alcohol, can be fatal.

Long-term use of benzodiazepines can cause memory impairment, depression, repiratory and cardiovascular problems, irritability, drowsiness, poor concentration, muscle weakness, vertigo, impaired motor coordination, and mental confusion. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can casue anxiety, perceptual disturbances, depression, psychosis, and seizures.

Withdrawal from alcohol can cause nausea, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), visual disturbances, muscle pain, hallucinations, agitatin, itching, parasthesis (tingling or a pins-and-needles feeling), tremors, sweating, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares.

In some cases of long-term alcohol abuse, withdrawal can result in delirium tremens (DTs), which is marked by confusion, disorientation, delusions, hallucinations, tremor, fever, sweating, rapid heartbeat, or death (rarely). Several weeks of continous alcohol consumption can cause alcohol epilepsy (“rum fits”), resulting in grand mal seizures lasting about 36 hours. It can be dangerous to combine benzodiazepines with alcohol; this combination is what caused Karen Ann Quinlan’s coma (Preston, O’Neal, & Talaga, 2008).

The main active ingredients of marijuana (Cannabis sativa) is THC (delta-9-tetra-hydrocannabinol). It is also known as pot, grass, wee, herb, or Mary Jane. Smoking marijuana increases blood pressure and heart rate and can have harmful effects on the lugns and heart. Marijuana use can cause distorted perceptions, impaired coordination, difficulty in thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2005a).

CNS depressant club drugs include GHBOpens in new window, Rohypnol (flunitrazepam), and Ketamine. Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine which is not approved for use in the Untied States. GHB (Xyrem) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2002 for use in the treatment of narcolepsy (a sleep disorder).

GHBOpens in new window is also used by bodybuilders to reduce fat and build muscle. GHB and Rohypnol have been used to facilitate date rape (or acquaintance rape). GHB has sedative effects at high doses, which may result in sleep, coma, or death. Rohypnol can produce amnesia for events experienced while under the influence of the drug (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2008).

KetamineOpens in new window is dissociative anesthetic, used mostly in veterinary practice. Ketamine (with effects similar to those of PCP) distorts perceptions of sight and sound and produces feelings of detachment from one’s environment and from oneself.

At low doses, it can cause dreamlike states, hallucinations, delirium, amnesia, impaired motor function, high blood pressure, and potentially fatal respiratory problems (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2008). Combining GHB with alcohol or other drugs can result in nausea, breathing difficulties, or overdose. Rohypnol can be lethal when mixed with alcohol or other CNS depressants.

CNS depressants have abuse potential and create tolerance: with long-term use, larger doses of the substance are required to achieve the same effects. Long-term use can result in withdrawal when the drug is discontinued. Withdrawal from CNS depressants can cause seizures and other life-threatening consequences (National Institute onf Drug Abuse, 2005b).

Because of the potential for serious medical complications of discontinuing some CNS depressants, treatment for abuse or dependence may necessitate medically supervised detoxification. Other treatments may consist of a combination of 12-step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), family therapy, group or individual counseling, and pharmacotherapy. Medications used to treat alcohol dependence include Zofran (ondansetron), naltrexone (Revia, Trexan), disulfram (Antabuse), or acamprosate.

See also:
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2005a). Research report series—Marijuana abuse (NIH Publication No. 05-3859). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2005b). Research report series—Prescription drugs: Abuse and addiction (NIH Publication No. 01-4881). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. Preston, J.D., O’Neal, J. H., & Talaga, M.C. (2008). Handbook of clinical psychopharmacology for therapists (5th ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.